Close Encounters Series - Carol is our volunteer archivist in the Perth Observatory’s research library
We get to chat with some fascinating people at the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group and everyone has some great stories to tell. I bumped into Carol Wolf in the kitchen and over a nice cuppa (or two) got a bit of an insight into some of her amazing discoveries as the Volunteer Archivist in the Perth Observatory’s Research Library. But first, let’s find out a bit more about Carol.
Carol became a volunteer with the POVG in February 2012, it was close to home and gave her a break from her one day a week that she still does at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Armadale. “It’s a really interesting job too, but can be very intense. I enjoy it at the Observatory as I can plod along in the library on my own. At the Citizen’s Advice Bureau you get a lot of people with issues, here is relaxed.” Says Carol. “By doing volunteer work, I can do something useful and still meet the needs of my family’.”
Born in Bruce Rock while her family lived in Narembeen, Carol had always thought she was going to do something in medical research but got married instead. “I was a teenage bride and we are still married 45 years later,” says Carol. “My hubby John is a farmer, we moved around a bit managing properties. I was a farmer’s wife and a mother, for years working with the sheep and cattle, fixing fences, driving machinery – if it could move and had a motor, I drove it!” laughs Carol.
Once the kids grew up and went to Perth to follow their careers, Carol and John left farming “whilst we felt young enough to make the change” and moved to Perth. They looked after a property in Kelmscott which featured a historic house and together with the owner restored it to its former glory, turning it into the beautiful Bed and Breakfast “Poplar Cottage”. In their first year of operation, they won the “2005 Small Business Award in Customer Service”. It was right on the river on Brookton Highway, next to Buckingham Bridge. “Then we had the fire” remembers Carol. “It didn’t burn but the bridge did! We stayed, defended the property and saved it, but it was time to move on.” After a long struggle with the Planning Commission, Carol and John finally built their own little house in the bush. “We feel like we’re still in the country. I first met my husband about a kilometre from where we live now. We’ve done a full circle” laughs Carol.
Carol started volunteering at the Perth Observatory under the direction of a paid staff member, Vera, who was in charge of the Library at the time and set her to work cataloguing the entire library onto a database. A job that was predicted to take 8 ½ years but thanks to Carol’s perseverance only took 3 ½. “There were duplicates of journals coming out of our ears” remembers Carol. Jo, a part-time member of the clerical staff set up the program and Lesley Dubois, a librarian from the Library Board, told them what to do. They were using the Dewey catalogue system and still do today. The Observatory had never had a designated Librarian, instead, various clerical staff looked after it as part of their duties. “Sometimes they were on the ball, but sadly due to the turnover of staff, lots of books went missing,” says Carol. The Observatory’s transition to being run by the POVG was difficult for Carol. “It wasn’t done how I expected. There was no handover, the staff were given a timeframe which was cut short. The volunteer board have done well with a difficult job” she says.The Research Library isn’t a Lending Library. There are over 3000 books ranging in age from the early 1800’s to present day, all kept at a constant temperature of 24 degrees Celcius.
“What’s in the library is unbelievable!” exclaims Carol “some of the books are the only ones in the world. We have almost the entire series of the “Nature Journal” from 1870 to now.” We have the Astronomic Almanacs, a copy of every Thesis researched here over the past 30 years, Published Articles from past Astronomers, Research Papers, Astrographic and Star Catalogues, Journals, Maps and Atlas’s.
All the Observatories exchanged information worldwide. Perth Observatory has whole sections from the USSR, Austria, Germany and France to name but a few. “We have a lot of documents from Mt Stromlo who lost everything in a fire,” says Carol. “We are still discussing what to do with it all, Paul Jones and Craig Bower are looking at strategies for the future.” Carol is also working with Craig Bowers to archive the Observatory’s operational records onto a database – and the amount of information stored is overwhelming. The past Astronomers documented everything from hours travelled, to where they’ve been, why, what they were doing there and who they spoke to.
“The Old Astronomers answered every letter sent from a child, some long and detailed and some abrupt. They are so interesting as some had a correspondence with a member of the public that continued over some time. I would like to research the Old Astronomers and the different ways they operated, the different aspects of their personalities.” “One of the astronomers was in Europe and ran his vehicle into a ditch in the snow. In his letter to his colleagues, he included not only a drawing of his car in the ditch but a description and calculation of the angle of the car in the ditch.” There are even letters from a past Technician (Ari) that he’d sent as a child to the Astronomers of the day.
So, what’s the future of the Research Library?
Carol would like it to stay as it is but says realistically it may not be practical. “To me, books are meant to be used. A lot of the research can be done online but some of the older books may not be online. The scientific and historical value of the books is immeasurable. The Research Library belongs here but needs its purpose and value.” The ultimate decision will possibly be up to the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
Carol, do you have any advice for new Volunteers?
“Volunteering at the Observatory gives you an opportunity to learn so much more. Don’t be afraid of the commitment, just enjoy it! You get to meet so many interesting people.” And she reminds us “Volunteers are not paid because they are worthless but because they are priceless.” Carol is just one of the “unsung heroes” of the Perth Observatory happily toiling away in a backroom amongst clouds of dust and old papers. As she disappeared back into the depths of it all she gave me one of her cheeky smiles and called out “I just love books, I wish I could live in a library.”